Student Preassessment for Distance Education

Purdue University-Calumet, the second-largest campus in the Purdue University system, based in urban Hammond, Indiana, boasts an ever-changing and diverse student population of more than 9,000 commuter students. A large percentage of these are non-traditional students, including returning adults with myriad family and work responsibilities.

The School of Education requires a course in technology skills for the classroom teacher in its undergraduate teacher education curriculum. Traditionally, this course--EDCI 260: Introduction to Computers in Education--has been held in a 20-workstation teaching lab, where students complete a wide array of projects, from creating PowerPoint presentations to developing Web-based instruction. During the first semesters of the course's inception nearly ten years ago, a large number of students encountered serious challenges in learning the software tools; for some, EDCI 260 was their first intensive work with a computer.

Times have changed a great deal. More students have access to technology off campus, and many of them have skills far beyond typing and e-mail retrieval. Some began to report that they were bored in their EDCI 260 classes, especially when other students asked for additional instruction or remediation during class time. So, it was decided that one section of the course would be offered via distance education, with the same assignments and objectives as the traditional course, so that those who wanted to could work at their own pace could do so.

However, as the number of distance education courses continues to grow at Purdue Calumet, no standardized method of preassessment has been defined, leaving it up to individual departments and faculty members to develop their own strategies. Registration for the first semester of the distance learning section of EDCI 260 consisted of many different types of students: Some were indeed there to challenge their computer skills, but others had registered simply because it fit into their busy lives. Even though advisors were instructed to warn students that access to a computer and the Internet was necessary, some initially registered did not even own a computer. A number had very limited technical skills and had trouble even accessing the Blackboard-based course. Others found themselves struggling to understand the readings and complete assignments on their own, within the time given.

Obviously, there was a problem. Assessment of students before they registered for distance learning coursework had to become a crucial step in the advising process in order for the right students to be placed in the right section. The solution put in place: If a student expresses interest in registering for the course, she must speak with an advisor. Although Purdue University Calumet has an online registration system, the course has been "flagged" so that students cannot self-enroll without first getting approval.

During the advising process, the student is asked to fill out a short survey. Currently, this comes from the University of Illinois' Illinois Online Network (http://www.ion.illinois.edu/IONresources/onlineLearning/selfEval. asp), which is a project to advance Internet-based learning based at the university's main campus in Champaign, Illinois. The survey asks questions about the student's abilities to spend extra reading and study time, to work individually, and to access and use technology. In addition, the student is asked about her value of and needs for face-to-face instruction and social interaction. When finished, the assessment recommends whether or not the student is ready for distance education, and the advisor places her accordingly. This survey has served us well but a new one, based within the Purdue Calumet network for easier and more comprehensive tracking of student responses, is being developed for the Spring 2005 semester.

In practice now for four semesters, this process has not, unfortunately, provided a comprehensive solution. Often lacking self-assessment training, students are not always honest enough with themselves to truly reflect on their own learning styles and time management abilities before completing the survey. Some believe that simply because they can navigate the Internet and create Microsoft Word documents, that they have all of the technical skills they need. But this is a course about education technology, where they are asked to take those basic skills farther and create educationally appropriate multimedia and instructional Web pages. Those students with a weaker skill set find themselves struggling without guided assistance from a real person (who is not always available at midnight on a Saturday when some students do distance learning coursework).

So what else can be done to ensure that all students get the opportunity to be successful in EDCI 260? Recommendations from the faculty and students indicate that in addition to the distance learning needs survey, students should be expected to demonstrate key technical skills before registration, including searching on the Internet, creating a document with formatting features such as alignment settings and page numbers, manipulating onscreen graphics and icons, and sending attached files. If proficiencies proved to be lacking, the student would complete a basic computer skills course before entering EDCI 260. A face-to-face orientation at the beginning of the semester may also be required soon for all distance learning students, where initial problems and questions can be addressed in real time and the students can become acquainted with their instructor.

It is hoped by those interested in furthering distance learning at Purdue Calumet that the School of Education's work in developing better assessment strategies for distance learning students will provide a model for the rest of the university. Addressing the unique needs of Purdue Calumet's diverse student population is a continuing challenge, but if these strategies are successful, it will show in the enhanced success and retention rates of our students.

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